The new great white hope of the religious right?

After making a fortune in high-tech and serving as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Naftali Bennett is campaigning to lead the Jewish Home party. His platform? Annex much, but not all, of the West Bank

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

It rarely happens that a politician runs against the rabbi who officiated at his wedding. But that’s the somewhat awkward position political newcomer Naftali Bennett finds himself in right now, as he’s challenging Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz — who is also a rabbi — for the leadership of the Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) party during its upcoming primaries. Bennett is not only running against Hershkowitz, the chairman of this new incarnation of the National Religious Party, but also against former minister and veteran MK Zevulun Orlev.

Compared to his rivals, Bennett’s political resume is rather thin. It includes little more than a two-year stint as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, when Netanyahu was in the opposition, and two years at the helm of the Council of Jewish Settlements.

Bennett, 40, might lack experience, but self esteem he lacks not. And why would he? The Haifa native, son of US immigrants, is being hailed by some on the right as “religious Zionism’s new hope” and one the “most intriguing personalities to recently throw his name into the political ring.”

Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

What makes this politician different from all other politicians?

For a start, Bennett is relatively young, and doesn’t need the money. After serving in an elite army unit, he co-founded Cyota, a start-up providing online security and anti-fraud software. Six years later, he sold the company for $145 million, which, supporters might argue, makes him less prone to corruption.

But potentially more important is that Bennett says he has a realistic plan for how to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: annexing the parts of the West Bank that are currently fully controlled by Israel — the areas designated as Area C, covering some 60% of the West Bank territory and home to an estimated 4% of the Palestinian populace.

“The only plan that can be implemented tomorrow is one that talks about applying Israeli sovereignty and law to Area C and offering citizenship to the 48,000 Arabs who live there,” Bennett told The Times of Israel recently in Jerusalem. “When I announced this breakthrough plan, I was vehemently attacked — by Peace Now, Yair Lapid and the Labor party, but also by [right-wing politicians] — which means I’m on to something.” Needless to say, Bennett’s plan would also be unacceptable to the Palestinians.

The so-called one-state solution, which sees no room for a Palestinian state anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, has been gaining steam in recent months among right-wing Israelis. Even some mainstream politicians, such as coalition chairman Zeev Elkin, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, advocate for an Israeli annexation of the West Bank. The difference between Bennett and most of his rivals on the right is that he seeks to apply Israeli sovereignty only to the areas of the West Bank where most Jews (and the least number of Arabs) live.

Most other expansionists, such as Hershkowitz, or the National Union’s MK Uri Ariel, want to either annex the entire West Bank or continue with the status quo until the time is deemed to be ripe for a Greater Israel. If you only annex Area C, they argue, you forfeit your claims to the rest of the land in the eyes of the international community.

Bennett, who himself doesn’t live in the West Bank but in Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv, vehemently rejects this argument.

“Obviously all of Eretz Yisrael belongs to us, and the plan I set forward doesn’t give up sovereignty of one centimeter,” he said. “What it does do is put forward what I think is the only practicable action plan. If we’re in a race for who can have more patriotic statements, that’s one thing. But in the mean time, while we’re making these wonderful statements — made, by the way, by the very same people in the government who are not voting against tearing down houses — we’re losing all of Judea and Samaria.”

Bennett was referring to Hershkowitz. In June, when the Knesset voted on a bill tabled by Orlev that would retroactively legalize unauthorized settlements built on Palestinian land, Hershkowitz was absence from the plenum.

Israeli soldiers patrol among Palestinian pedestrians in Hebron
Israeli soldiers patrol among Palestinian pedestrians in Hebron in 2011. (soldiers image via Shutterstock)

“Israel’s position in the international community vis-à-vis Judea and Samaria has been deteriorating in the last couple of years, because we don’t have a practical, positive plan,” Bennett said. “The idea to annex all of Judea and Samaria has always existed, but because it’s still impracticable, it’s meaningless.”

Bennett stands pretty much alone with this view, and he admits his proposal is “an imperfect solution.”

“The right have always been split on the type of solution they are seeking, so overall the people in the nationalist camp are against the plan,” said Jeremy Saltan, an adviser to the far-right National Union party and its chairman Yaakov “Katzeleh” Katz. “The question is whether [Bennett] can succeed in selling it to people as a temporary plan — because if he can, he will see more support.”

‘The world has a few other things on its plates, stuff that is more important than the exact legal status of Ofra or Gush Etzion. We have to ask what’s right for us and the world will condemn but then move on’

To rebut those who fear seeking a partial annexation of the West Bank is tantamount to relinquishing the rest of it, Bennett uses a typical left-wing argument: the demographic threat. “I don’t see the Israeli public agreeing to annex 1.8 million Arabs. I just don’t see that as a practicable plan,” he said. According to Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates, there are actually 2.2 million Palestinians living there, not including East Jerusalem. This week, the Israeli settlement movement celebrated 350,000 Jews living in Judea and Samaria — 15,000 more than last year — and projected that with the current growth rate of 4.5 percent, there will be half a million Jews there within four years.

According to Bennett’s so-called Stability Plan, the Palestinians currently living in the West Bank would have “autonomy” but no state. “Those Arabs will be able to decide whether they want to vote in Judea and Samaria, in this autonomy we’re talking about, or in Jordan, Palestine proper,” he explained. “That will be up to them. I will not patronize them and tell them what to do.”

But Bennett’s ostensibly unpatronizing offer of “autonomy” does include two caveats: “They can’t form their own military,” he added quickly, “and they cannot open their gates to the six million descendants of the 1948 refugees, because that would flood the Land of Israel with Arabs.”

Bennett is not afraid of the international community, which would surely react with outrage if Israel were to annex Area C. “No country in the world is going to recognize that Ariel and Maaleh Adumim and Beit El are a sovereign part of Israel,” he admits. “But for that matter, no one in the world recognized Ramot or Giloh or even the French Hill neighborhood [in Jerusalem] as part of Israel, or the Golan Heights. So we can just add another part to Israel that the world will not agree to.”

‘We have to ask what’s right for us. The world will condemn us but then move on’

When Israel treats the settlements as part of Israel, they will ultimately become a part of Israel, he believes.

Back in 1981, when Israel annexed the Golan Heights, the left feared Israel would become a pariah state, he said. “And for two or three days the world condemned us indeed — and then went on to a George Michaels or Madonna concert, or whatever they were doing back in the ’80s. With all due respect, the world has a few other things on its plate, like Greece and Spain falling apart, the economy in the slump, a hundred Syrians being massacred a day; stuff that is more important than the exact legal status of Ofra or Gush Etzion. We have to ask what’s right for us, and the world will condemn but then move on.”

Bennett is not entirely unknown in political circles, but a number of political scientists contacted for this article said they don’t know enough about him to comment. One professor said Bennett’s candidacy was “a bit curious.”

Professor Shmuel Sandler, a Bar-Ilan University expert on religion, party and electoral politics in Israel, knows enough about Bennett to say that he might have a chance to actually win the Jewish Home primaries, scheduled for November (registration for party members closes September 9). “Bennett had a good position with Netanyahu, but then Orlev still has the support [of the party’s establishment]. The young generation of national-religious voters are looking for a young leadership. But most young national-religious people vote Likud, so if Bennett manages to attract votes from the Likud he could be in good position.”

A panoramic view of the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
A panoramic view of the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Born to parents who had immigrated to Israel from San Francisco in 1967, Bennett still holds an American passport. If he were elected to the Knesset, he would have to renounce his citizenship, a step he says he’d “happily” take. “I have one identity, and that’s Israeli and Jewish. I don’t view myself as an American citizen.”

Bennett grew up in a secular home but became religiously observant at a young age, after attending a Chabad Lubavitch summer camp. He served in the army’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, where he continues to serve in reserves, holding the rank of major. After his $145 million high-tech exit in 2005, he worked as Netanyahu’s chief of staff for two years.

“He’s a good man,” Bennett said about his former boss, the prime minister. “His heart is in the right place, and I think his main goal is to strengthen Israel. However, the one area where he needs to be strengthened from outside is his ability to have a very clear moral compass, which I think sometimes is vague. The two main flags he held up his whole life — standing strong against terror and stopping a Palestinian state — were unfortunately taken down and he folded them during this term. This is disappointing.”

Bennett knows Netanyahu will most likely be reelected prime minister, and intends to support him over all other centrist or leftist candidates, all the while scrutinizing him vis-a-vis his support for the settlements. “I see part of our job to strengthen him from the outside. I’d be very worried that if the Likud is too strong he could do anything, and I’d be very worried about what he could do under international pressure,” he said.

When it comes to the Iranian threat, however, Bennett fully supports Netanyahu, who has been dropping hints about launching a preemptive military strike on the regime’s nuclear facilities.

“Whatever he decides on this, I trust him,” Bennett said. “I don’t accept at all the theory that we can outsource our security to the United States. History tells us that when push comes to shove, nobody will do the job for us.”

Theodor Herzl envisioned the Jewish state as a shelter, but Bennett says Israel needs to be more than that. “If Iran gets a nuclear bomb, Israel in one fell swoop will turn into the most dangerous place in the world for Jews,” he said. “That undermines Israel’s very existence. Israel becoming the most dangerous place in the world for Jews – we just cannot let that happen. I’m willing to pay a considerable price to prevent that, including very costly conflicts and wars.”

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